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Seth Mnookin Headshot

"Vigilante for Truth": An Accurate Headline... or Shameless Twitter Bait?

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Earlier today, New York Times public editor Arthur Brisbane caused a bit of a kerfuffle when he posted an (online only) piece titled "Should The Times Be a Truth Vigilante?" "I'm looking," Brisbane wrote, "for reader input on whether and when New York Times news reporters should challenge 'facts' that are asserted by newsmakers they write about."

Judging from my Twitter feed, the response among my peers to Brisbane's question has been fairly unanimous: Are you f-ing kidding me?

On the one hand, I agree with this sentiment: If reporters' jobs isn't to ferret out the truth, what, exactly, are they doing? In fact, I think the willingness to regurgitate outrageous (and false) claims using a pretense of journalistic objectivity is a huge problem in reporting about politics, science, and medicine. One of the things I rail against in The Panic Virus, my book about the controversy over autism and vaccines, is the reporters who justified publicizing unfounded (and in many cases disproven) claims by saying they were just being fair to "both sides" of an issue.

However, this isn't that easy a discussion -- as evidenced by the first example Brisbane gives in his piece:

One example mentioned recently by a reader: As cited in an Adam Liptak article on the Supreme Court, a court spokeswoman said Clarence Thomas had "misunderstood" a financial disclosure form when he failed to report his wife's earnings from the Heritage Foundation. The reader thought it not likely that Mr. Thomas "misunderstood," and instead that he simply chose not to report the information.

In this situation, I don't think it's so easy to simply say, "Thomas was lying." The most obvious reason for this is we don't know that's true. The question then becomes how does one best convey the reality of the situation? Maybe I'm an outlier here, but to my eyes, it seems fairly clear that Liptak wanted his readers to understand that he was dubious of Thomas's claim -- hence the scare quotes.

In fact, considering he's writing about the implications of misrepresenting facts, I think Brisbane's biggest problem is the use of a Twitter-bait headline that doesn't really reflect the question at hand. Of course the Times should be a vigilante for the truth. The question is what, exactly, that entails.

(For more on the Times, I'm in the midst of a multi-part Q&A with Pulitzer Prize-winning Times science reporter Amy Harmon about her recent front page piece, "Navigating Love and Autism." Part one of my interview is here; part two is here.)